There’s a good chance Georges Borchardt was responsible for shepherding at least one of your favorite writers to publication. After immigrating to New York from war-torn France at age nineteen in 1947, Borchardt found work as an assistant at a literary agency. One of the first sales he completed on his own was a play by an Irishman titled Waiting for Godot.
Over the next seven decades, Borchardt introduced American readers to works by Jean-Paul Sartre, Marguerite Duras, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Eugene Ionesco, and found a home for Elie Wiesel’s oft-rejected Night. He has represented John Gardner, Mavis Gallant, Stanley Elkin, and John Ashbery. Today his clients include Ian McEwan, T. C. Boyle, and Susan Minot as well as the nonfiction writers Tracy Kidder, Anne Applebaum, Adam Hochschild, and—somehow—me.
Wry and self-deprecating, Borchardt’s French-accented answers are often punctuated with a laugh that sounds like a mixture of joy and disbelief. This isn’t surprising when you consider the path his extraordinary life has taken—from hiding in plain sight in Nazi-occupied France to representing five Nobel laureates and eight Pulitzer winners. For his contributions to literature, in 2010 he became the first literary agent to be awarded France’s highest award, the Legion of Honour.
Borchardt and his wife, Anne, have run their own agency together since 1967. We spoke over sandwiches in his office on East Fifty-Seventh Street and Lexington.
When you began in 1947, were agents as entrenched in publishing as they are today?
When I started working as an agent, I didn’t even know what an agent was. I had never heard of the profession. And there was no such profession in France. The job I had, it didn’t even say “agent” on the letterhead. It said “Authors and Publishers Representative.” It took me at least six months to figure out what we were really doing. Agents were not held in great esteem. For a long time, publishers felt that agents were like parasites. When they were polite, they called them “middlemen”—not realizing that they themselves were middlemen and that the only important ones were the authors and the readers.
How did you get that first job?
After I arrived in New York, I went to a number of employment agencies, and they always said, What’s your American experience? Well, I had none. But then again, I didn’t have any experience. I was nineteen. The son of a man who had worked for my father in Paris—a high school kid—helped me write a classified ad for the New York Times. I put two ads in the Times, and two letters came in response–both from the same person, Marion Saunders. She owned an agency that specialized in foreign writers—they had recently sold Albert Camus’s The Stranger for $350 to Knopf.
In addition to getting coffee and bookkeeping, I was supposed to read French books. I thought that was amazing—I could get paid to read, and I could get free books. I mean, during the war, there were no books in France. There was no paper, there was very little being printed, and all of my books and the family’s books had disappeared. At the office in New York, I would see things that were interesting and think, I may not be able to sell this, but I may as well read it. It was a way to build my library. Did I know I was an agent? Of course not. I really didn’t know what that was.
One thing the war had taught me was a dislike for owning things. Because everything I liked as a child had disappeared—my stamp collection, my books. I mean, in those days, when you gave a book to a child, it was not an insult. If I didn’t ask for a book for Christmas, I asked to have one of my favorite books bound. They came uncut, with paper covers. I would go to a place and select the end papers and the leather for the binding, and then I would have this beautiful object to take home. Well, all these things were gone.
What did you read as a kid?
In the lycée at the time, the world more or less stopped at the end of the nineteenth century. I wasn’t taught Proust or Gide. You didn’t learn anything about foreign literature. If you wanted to read Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky—that’s not what was being taught. But I was fond of translations—Ivanhoe, James Fenimore Cooper. I collected a whole series of “tales” books—Tales of the Aztecs, Tales of the Greeks, Tales of the Bible, and so on. In school, I was always first in récitation, memorizing scenes by Racine or Molière. I always got the main roles. I thought I might become an actor.
What did your parents do?
My parents were German Jews, and when they saw Hitler appearing in 1932 or 1933, they decided to move to Paris. My father was in the record business, as the head of Polydor, which produced Edith Piaf, among others. We lived in the bourgeois sixteenth arrondissement, near the Trocadéro. The building is still there, on the corner of rue Scheffer and rue Louis David. Because of my father’s important position, there wasn’t that much interaction between him and his children. We had a maid and a cook, and a barber that came to shave him. My mother was mainly in charge of making him comfortable. We weren’t allowed in the living room alone. That was adult territory.
I have two memories of my father. One was going with him to the 1937 World’s Fair. The other was when he took me to an American movie—American films were considered immoral. We went to see Bringing Up Baby.
How did your life change when the Nazis occupied Paris in 1940?
My father had died of cancer just before. I remember the first time I had to wear the Jewish star. That I remember very vividly. We lived in this bourgeois quartier, and if we saw a black person, he was probably a very elegantly dressed ambassador. I remember the first time I walked to the lycée with this thing on. I was very nervous. There was a black man on the other side of the street, and he crossed over to me, and he shook my hand. I was thirteen or fourteen. I’ll never forget that gesture.
What do you remember about fleeing Paris?
It was just before the Nazis rounded up people at the Vel’ d’hiv, in 1942, before deporting them to Auschwitz. My oldest sister had a friend whose boyfriend worked for the police, so we were told about it. My mother’s Russian dressmaker’s Spanish boyfriend came and got us and brought us to the apartment of some White Russian princess. Then, for some reason, we left that place, and we stayed with an abortionist. The police came for her, not because we were staying there, and somehow—I have only vague recollections of this—the Spaniard came at the same time and got us to go to the roof until the police left. Then it was arranged that we would go to Chalon-sur-Saône, which was a small town southeast of Paris that was half in the occupied zone and half in the free zone. At night—if you paid them—people would take you in a rowboat to the other side of the Saône River.
So my mother, my two older sisters, and I somehow got down there, partly by train, partly by walking, because it was too obvious if you arrived at the train station. When we did arrive, my legs were all cramped up, and I could barely stand anymore. And my mother, who I think in her youth had studied to be a nurse, massaged my legs so I would be able to walk. That evening, we were told that the guy who ferried people across had been shot at and now he wasn’t doing it anymore. Somehow, we got an identity card that allowed us to go back and forth across the bridge. The card was for a woman, and whoever sold it to us doctored it up each time, so my mother went over, and then each of my sisters went over. There was nothing for me, of course.
I was told to cross over with a group of schoolkids. I was given a little apron like they were wearing, over short pants—I was rather small for my age. I still remember crossing the bridge—there were guards and soldiers—and feeling my legs turning to cotton. The guards may have been part of the French militia, which was even worse than the Germans. Once across, it was easy. We went to Nice, a large city with schools. I went to private school there. And then the next summer, we went to the beach. One day, I returned to the hotel, and I was told that my mother had been arrested by the French militia. And so I left immediately—I knew the militia would come back. I met a boy from school who was older than I, and he put me in touch with a priest in Nice who took me in. He arranged for my sisters to go to some village up in the hills, a dead-end kind of place. I spent the rest of the summer with the priest. Then I went to the lycée in Aix-en-Provence. One of the professors there knew of my parents through his parents, and also knew the head of the lycée. He arranged for me to be in school without being officially on the books.
Was this common?
Did your peers know?
Did you use your real name?
Yes, but we took the t off Borchardt because there was a pianist called Adolphe Borchard, without the t, who was actively performing and composing film music during the occupation, and so that sounded like a good thing.
What happened to your mother?
My mother was sent to Auschwitz. Nobody knew how bad the camps were and that people weren’t going to come back. For years, actually, after the war … Sometimes you’re on the street … You know how you see somebody and it reminds you of somebody, and you’re not sure—Is it Joe? I would think maybe this was my mother. That lasted for quite a while, coming to terms with her death.
After the war, did you and your sisters return to your home in Paris?
First, I went with my oldest sister to try and repossess the apartment. I was there for moral support. Various people had camped there—Germans, collaborators. We got it back, and it was weird. We camped in this rather large, empty apartment. I slept in what had been my sister’s room, and we tried to rent out the rest, since we needed money.
In Aix, I had passed the baccalauréat exam, with a name without a t on the end. That allowed me at the time to go to any graduate school or law school. Most people who didn’t know what they wanted to do went to law school, so I went, and I hated it. I was only seventeen. Then I worked for probably nine months at my late father’s old firm, Polydor. My sisters had worked for an American field hospital in Aix-en-Provence, and they wanted to immigrate to America. We sold the lease to our apartment and came over in May 1947.
Have you gone back to the apartment since?
I’ve gone by there to show Anne where I lived. I didn’t want to connect with the past, but one year we went there, to rue Scheffer. The building had five or six apartments, one apartment per floor. We had lived on the third floor, and in the window, there was a sign that said FOR SALE. I said maybe we can ask the concierge to see inside, but there wasn’t one anymore. There was just a code pad to enter.
But here’s a strange thing. We represent Patrick Modiano, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014. After he won, I started looking through his as-yet-untranslated books to see if there were any short stories we could sell in translation. And I actually found two pieces that I thought could stand alone, and we placed them with Harper’s and The Paris Review. In one, there is a character who goes to visit somebody, and it’s in an empty apartment on rue Scheffer.
Of all the streets in Paris, he chose that one.
Right [laughs]. But now Modiano has written a new novel, which Yale University Press will publish in translation this fall, and it’s essentially—I mean, all of his novels are essentially a little bit the same. They’re about memory. This one is about six women the narrator has known. And one, the younger one, is working for the Polydor recording studio—where, of course, my father and I worked.
Of all the businesses in Paris …
I wrote him and told him this and that I lived on rue Scheffer. Modiano keeps all these old phone books in his apartment because he checks addresses. He wrote back and said, “Yes, I see your phone number was PASSY 66 12.” The letters represented neighborhoods, just as in New York you had PLAZA, today’s 753.
Now I have chills. This reminds me of the exiled Nabokov in Speak, Memory, wondering who would pick up the phone if he dialed his childhood home in St. Petersburg.
And the funny thing is I have trouble remembering my own phone number now, but for some reason that number—PASSY 66 12—is still engraved in my memory.
What were your impressions of America when you arrived at age nineteen?
New York City was a disappointment. I had six years of English in school, and yet I couldn’t communicate with people. I could translate a poem about daffodils, but there is a difference between sitting behind a desk and being out with people. It’s embarrassing, and you sound stupid. Then you realize that people think you’re stupid. You speak funny because of your accent, and what you say is so simplistic. And by the time you have something interesting to say, the conversation is already miles away. You become the quiet one. And you feel a bit hostile toward these people, who are having a great time while you sit there moping.
You got the job assisting at the agency, but then you were drafted into the U.S. Army. How is that possible?
I worked for three years at the agency and was drafted in 1950. The French consul told me I could choose between the French or American armies, and that the Americans had better food. I was lucky—I was sent to Iceland instead of Korea, where most of my basic training class went. And the reason was because I had made a mistake [laughs]. Mike Bessie, the senior editor at the Harper publishing house, had sort of taken me under his wing. “You should be in intelligence,” he told me. He had done this in World War II. One day, they asked for volunteers for intelligence, and I raised my hand. What I didn’t realize is that there were different forms of intelligence. So I was trained to crawl under barbed wires to go behind enemy lines. And while I was being trained, most of my buddies were sent to Korea as infantry. I was left behind and went with the next group to Iceland. My ignorance, or stupidity, really saved my life.
We were sent there to protect the Keflavík airfield from a Communist takeover [laughs]. I was there for a year and a half, until 1952. I got two thirty-day leaves to go to France, where I met the publishers whose books I had been reading in New York. One was a member of the Communist Party, and because I was wearing an American uniform, he was terrified someone would see us. It was not by choice. I just didn’t have any other clothes. When I got out of the army, Paul Flamand, the head of Editions du Seuil, wrote me. “If you decide to start your own agency,” he said, “I’d like you to represent us in the U.S.” That’s how it started.
When you returned to New York, did your career begin in earnest?
No. I attended New York University at night on the G.I. Bill and earned a B.A. in English. Then I taught French-language courses there, which is where I met Anne. I earned a master’s and agented on the side for six years.
Was there just no money in agenting? Advances were much smaller then.
It was hard for writers to earn much money. If someone said, I’m a writer, the next question was, And what do you do for a living? It was not—and still isn’t—considered a serious profession like being a lawyer or a doctor or even an elevator man. The real money for fiction and nonfiction was the magazines. I remember in the late forties and early fifties, an editor for Ladies’ Home Journal or The Saturday Evening Post would make the rounds of agents and see what stories had come in. Weeklies paid very well, and writers made a living from that. All but maybe two of Mavis Gallant’s one hundred stories appeared in The New Yorker. That’s what she lived on.
After you sold Waiting for Godot, did it feel like a breakthrough?
Grove paid a thousand dollars, but it was for the play and two novels, Molloy and Malone Dies. I was very happy to finally find a publisher for Beckett, and the French publisher was happy. But then you have to go on. I had just sold three books by a fairly hopeless writer who was already old. I think he was forty-nine, and from an American point of view, he was over the hill and clearly didn’t hold much promise. The novels would come out eventually, but first he had to rewrite them in English, so it was quite a ways off.
Beckett insisted on rewriting them?
For the first novel, he did the translation with someone else, and he realized it didn’t make any sense, so he rewrote it. He rewrote Waiting for Godot as well. In the original French, Vladimir asks Estragon, “Have you ever been to the Vaucluse?” Estragon replies, “I’ve never been to the Vaucluse. I have always lived in Merdecluse.” You can’t translate that joke. In English, it becomes “I’ve never been to Mâcon, I’ve only lived in Cackon County,” switching merde with caca. Both seem ludicrous—you don’t expect these people to have been anywhere.
If not for you, would Beckett have found an audience?
Of course he would have. His books were being published in France thanks to his small French publisher, Les Éditions de Minuit. Godot was produced in Paris. All the people who claimed to have “discovered” Beckett—I mean, that’s nonsense. In a sense, we all discovered him, but it wasn’t a unique experience. That’s true of all of the French books that I’ve placed here, over two thousand of them.
Did selling his work help your career?
Did it ever bring me a single author? I doubt it. If anything, I think a novelist would say, I’m not Beckett, and pass me by. The only person I think who may have been influenced by this was Robert Coover, because he was very close to Beckett’s style. But in fact, when Coover came to us, he had already had at least one, maybe two agents before. He had an editor he really liked, and he decided he didn’t need an agent. The editor said to him, “You have to get an agent, otherwise I have to screw you,” and he gave him my name. It’s possible that because we had Beckett, he thought, Here’s somebody who reads things a little bit differently. Maybe.
Why was Elie Wiesel’s Night such a hard sell?
In my cover letter I wrote that it was “a book that I feel more strongly about than any other I ever sent you.” But nobody wanted to hear about the Holocaust. Scribner’s said it was a horrifying, moving document, but that there was no market for “what remains a document.” Kurt Wolff, the head of Pantheon, said the house “always refrained from doing books of this kind.” Simon & Schuster passed. Dutton. Ballantine. Blanche Knopf rejected it, saying “I imagine you will have someone in your office who may want to deal with it abroad in England, or wherever.” Wherever!
In 1959, after fifteen houses passed, Hill & Wang finally paid a $250 advance for the book, payable in two installments, on the condition that I find a British partner to share the translation cost.
Their first print run of 3,000 copies took three years to sell; sixty years later, the book sells at least that number each week. Worldwide, it sells 400,000-500,000 copies each year.
You also represent the estates of many writers, including Tennessee Williams, Aldous Huxley, Hannah Arendt, Patrick O’Brian, and Muriel Spark. How are handling estates different than handling authors?
Generally it’s fairly easy. I think for Aldous Huxley we negotiated over one hundred and fifty foreign rights contracts since we took over, and one of the biggest e-book contracts ever. Huxley’s heirs seem happy.
How did you come to represent John Ashbery?
I had read some of his poetry. I met him in New York, and what made him interesting to me is that he was a brilliant translator from the French. Rimbaud’s “Illuminations” are probably some of the hardest poems to translate, because these forms are very difficult even in French. John’s translation was superb.
He would always get his poems published in quarterlies or magazines by himself. We only did the books, and we’ve also sold the foreign rights, which is more difficult in a sense. You can’t just convince an editor to buy a book of poetry, because unless there’s a local poet who can reinterpret these poems, you know you can’t just translate them literally. You really need to have a Swedish, or French, or Italian poet who has fallen in love with Ashbery. There’s really much less one can do for a poet than for any other writer.
Do you have any interest in writing a memoir?
Was there ever a moment when you thought you might?
I might have done it had I been forced to sell the agency and had nothing else to do. The fact that our daughter Valerie joined the agency gave me a second wind. I can continue doing what I want without feeling irresponsible because everything works. It’s nearly a miracle.
Valerie, being an only child, has heard most of my stories. As a child she didn’t find them particularly interesting [laughs]. Actually she would say, “It’s ridiculous, you work all day, then you come home and read manuscripts, and then from time to time you go out with an author who does nothing but talk about herself.” That’s true [laughs]. But that’s what agents do.
It is a ridiculous profession, but so is writing. Your son will look at you working and think, “What do you do? You sit in front of a computer, alone, writing thousands of words. What’s the sense of this? We could be outside on the swing.”
If you analyze what we do in the context of the whole world of course you’re just, you know, this tiny little ant, and it doesn’t make any difference if the ant moves one way or another.
I don’t believe that. The ants move things in a necessary way, even if we don’t recognize it.
Maybe. I really feel in many cases that I’ve made it possible for a book to succeed and also made it possible for a writer to go on writing. And not all of them necessarily would recognize this. A few of them express gratitude. Some of them are not aware of it, and some of them don’t even like it. Because there’s this sort of red carpet syndrome—when you’ve known somebody, say, before they became “Mondrian,” or “Picasso,” they prefer the people who come later, and look up at them.
How do you know you want to represent a writer?
I don’t ask writers to pass some kind of test. There’s no way of measuring, it’s really all instinct. You can sometimes see it on the page or in the person.
If it’s on the page, it’s the actual writing. The way things are expressed differently. To most people there’s only one way of saying something: “The vase is over there.” So what can you add? But in fact there are millions of ways of saying it, sometimes without even mentioning the vase. You know, anybody can go to China, most people can learn Chinese, but they don’t necessarily see what you’ve seen, even though it’s right there. Not everyone who goes to China can write about China and be interesting.
And as an agent I have to be nearly as arrogant as the writer. You see, the writer is arrogant because he or she thinks that he or she can say something that has never been said before or say it better or differently. The agent is essentially doing the same thing, claiming that he or she can recognize this in somebody. If you don’t really believe you can do this, then you should do something else.
There are two things I find in my work. One is the act and the pleasure of reading. And the other one is what I call playing Monopoly, which is the act of negotiating with the publisher. It’s more important than just playing, but it follows the same techniques. It’s important. The publishers are still trying to keep authors in a sort of stranglehold by not giving them enough money.
Out of sheer greed. And shortness of vision. They don’t want to recognize that without the author, they would not exist. Their ideal would really be to replace the authors with some sort of computer program, which would also of course get rid of the agents as well. It would be a double riddance and a double victory.
Is this because of how long it takes to write a book, or for a writer to develop?
Authors aren’t reliable. They don’t always come up with a great idea, or they keep writing what seems to be the same book again and again and again. One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons is a woman coming up to a painter sitting in front of an easel by a pond and saying, “Claude, not water lilies again.” I’m sure someone once said that to him.
Writers are often misfits. After seven decades at this job, why do you still put up with them?
This is what I love and have always found fascinating: Writers know they’re writers. It takes something inside you to continue doing your work, despite the fact that no one wants you.
You’re a genial person, but when you negotiate with publishers you have a reputation for ferocity. Where does that come from? Are you the same way with your dry cleaner?
I don’t enjoy antagonism. I don’t even enjoy confrontation. And I would do very poorly with my dry cleaner. Negotiating for oneself is nearly impossible, It’s very difficult to say, “I’m just as good as so-and-so, and you paid that writer so much.” It’s hard to go to Random House and say, “I’m as good as the Obamas, so give me $65 million.” If you’re dealing on behalf of someone else, it’s different. Once I was arguing with Random House when it was owned by S.I. Newhouse, over a few thousand dollars, and I referenced a Jasper Johns painting Sy had just bought for $17 million. I said, “All I’m asking you for is a fraction of a square inch.”
That I enjoy doing—it’s the pleasure of trying to catch the other person a bit by surprise. They don’t expect Jasper Johns to be part of the negotiating.
As I think Donald Trump may find out one day, there is no such thing as the art of negotiating that applies to every negotiation. Each one is new, each one needs flexibility and an understanding of the circumstances and the value of what you are trying to sell. It’s very, very complicated, to put a value on a manuscript. I mean, you have this manuscript, and it’s typed on 300 pieces of paper. The paper was bought, let’s say, for $6. But now that you’ve put marks on it, it’s no longer worth $6, it’s worth zero. And now I am supposed to get thousands and thousands of dollars for it [laughs]. How do I know what it is worth?
Now, because everybody has the figures of what an author has sold before, people look at those and say, “I see this earned $22,000, and it’s risky and so on, but I’m going to be very generous and offer $25,000.” But you say, “This is a totally different book. This is not water lilies.”
Writers like to complain – about their publisher, or its marketing, or their agent. Sometimes writers have the disconcerting feeling that they work for their agent, not the other way around, since agents in essence elect to take us on as clients.
I work for the author. If authors present me with something that I think isn’t very saleable, I tell them. But if they want me to try to sell it, I’ll try to get the best possible deal. And I’ve been both right and wrong. Take Tracy Kidder’s House – it was after Soul of a New Machine won the Pulitzer, and I thought the obvious commercial follow-up would be another business book. I was wrong, and then I saw he was right. The idea is that you have to be right more often than wrong in order to succeed.
I think you’re unusual for an agent in that you line-edit manuscripts. You’re an attentive first reader.
I didn’t do that much of that before. The publishers are doing less and less, agents are doing more and more, and I think most agents do this. I like to edit before the writer gets suggestions from their editor, because that way if I say, “Take out this chapter because it’s boring,” and the editor also says that later, then maybe you will believe him or her.
In a way, what we are trying to do, essentially, is show the author what she would probably see for herself if she set the manuscript aside and read it six months later.
Morgan Entrekin, the head of Grove/Atlantic, once told me that writers are under a new kind of pressure, with expectations of huge advances and sales to match, even for their first book. The media reports those rare successes, and not the long path taken by writers such as Richard Ford, John Irving, Anne Tyler and Toni Morrison.
The people who work for Random House and the other big houses, their mission is to make as much money as possible for the firm and its shareholders—mainly the shareholders, and that’s really what rules things. And that is what is less good now. Before, individuals, not corporations, owned firms.
If I go to a firm and say: “This book isn’t going to sell that well in the next two or three years, but it has backlist sales written all over it. Twenty years from now: clear sailing—all you have to do is push a button and print 5,000.” The reply is: “What good does that do us? The CEO’s contract is up in three years. He needs to renegotiate his terms. He needs us to bring in things that sell between now and three years from now. He doesn’t care what is happening in 10 or 12 years. It’s not his firm.”
The first two Ian McEwan collections, First Love, Last Rites; In Between the Sheets, and Tom Boyle’s first collection, Descent of Man, probably sold fewer than two thousand copies each. But they’re still selling today. With Night, I wrote to publishers that this was very important, and they needed to publish it. I didn’t say it would sell [laughs].
Michael Meyer is the author of The Road to Sleeping Dragon: Learning China from the Ground Up, In Manchuria, and The Last Days of Old Beijing. He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Pittsburgh.
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